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Engineering a Powerful Employee Engagement Survey

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It’s common sense that anything worth doing, is worth doing right. But is it possible to do too much of a good thing? When it comes to employee surveys, this question is worth a closer look.

Recent experience, and current, ground breaking research, calls into question some popular trends in employee surveys. While these new approaches and technologies are seductive, used inappropriately, they begin to undermine value, which in turn hurts your workforce engagement efforts. This diminishing return happens mainly because of the interaction of two critical factors involved in delivering and executing an employee engagement survey: focus and frequency. Let’s us explain further.

Stay Focused on What Matters the Most.

Let’s start with the basics. The most important question a great survey can answer for managers and leaders at any level of an organization is:

What are the very best things that I, as a manager or leader, can focus on if I want all of my employees to want to work harder, stay longer, and care more?

In other words, what can I do to cause my people to be more motivated, committed, and conscientious?

Managers and leaders at every level of an organization, from the front line to the C-suite have an almost unlimited number of choices and alternatives when it comes to how they interact with, communicate to, support, encourage, develop, challenge, inspire, and hold accountable the people around them.

From an even longer list of options, a great survey process can answer definitively and specifically which of these many choices can lead to the most progress. Across an entire organization this process can be, and sometimes is, transformational. If you are going to the trouble of doing a survey, why not get the most out of it. We always do our best to convince executives that the right approach represents a very worthy investment.

How Much is Too Much?

But what about the other side of the coin? Can you have too much of a good thing? Yes, indeed, you can. In fact, Fairfield Research, a consumer research company with a particular expertise at making groundbreaking discoveries, reports:

Employees who report taking four or more employee surveys a year passively sabotage the results. Sometimes subtly, sometimes not so much.

Employees who report taking four or more surveys per year also report paying less attention to the survey items, are less truthful, and overall, less likely to complete or even take the survey at all. This means that after a certain point, the more you survey the less you can rely on the accuracy of the data. Certainly, that tipping-point varies from company to company based on a variety of factors including things like communication strategies, perceived transparency, trust, and survey follow-up—but the overall research is very revealing and a little unexpected.

Undoubtedly, skepticism plays a role in this passive sabotage from frequent surveys. Any time you do a survey and there is no follow-up, and it appears from the perspective of the employee that nothing changes, skepticism increases. It’s important to remember this well-established fact, no matter how frequently you survey. When it comes to employee engagement, other factors come into play in an even bigger way that create risks beyond skepticism.

Set A Strategy and Stick To It

Forty years of experience, observation, exploration, and research have confirmed, and continues to confirm, that an annual survey process based on sound, appropriate science and a focused, disciplined annual strategy is key. This can certainly be supplemented with a limited, mid-year pulse survey to monitor progress and provide motivation. However, without question, we can categorically say the annual survey approach moves the needle the most and provides the best return-on-investment for your time and money. If you question our logic, consider the following.

Employee engagement is not only a significant driver of workforce performance, but it is also a relatively enduring state of mind when measured across an entire organization. In other words, it tends to change slowly. Enduring perceptions across large groups of people do NOT bounce around quickly. In fact, the only exception to this would be some sort of unexpected crisis that breaks trust and discourages employees so much that their engagement and commitment take a large, sudden drop. And in these extreme cases it takes, at best, a very long time to recover.

We can point to examples of executive teams who put together a smart plan and executed it with discipline and insight and saw significant improvement in as little as three months. So, it can be done. But, we have also learned that if those executives lost focus and changed plans too soon, their gains disappeared. If you want to move the needle and experience sustainable progress on something as important and enduring as employee engagement it takes focus, discipline, and commitment. Ever changing priorities and messaging will not get it done.

Don’t Get Distracted by New Things.

These realities really call into question some of the new and innovative approaches that have been brought about by the newest technologies that make surveying employees so much faster and more efficient. Continuous Listening and Real-Time Engagement are nice ideas. The problem is they just don’t get the job done when it comes to creating a more engaged workforce. Just because technology makes the process easier and quicker doesn’t mean it’s better.

Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.

Just think about it. If you want to improve something as enduring as employee engagement why in the world would you want to continuously listen? There is a good chance it will bring about one of two outcomes—neither of which are favorable to your business. First, you can continuously listen but stick with the proven annual survey methodology based on sound science and a disciplined strategy, and basically ignore the ongoing feedback. This of course really ratchets up the cynicism and contributes to negativity around the survey process itself. Or second, you can continuously search the new data for ideas about how to change your messaging and focus. This basically ensures the ineffectiveness of a process that demands discipline and focus over time in order to make real progress

If you are measuring things that are rapidly changing, you are not measuring employee engagement. Most likely you’re measuring mood or happiness or other things that you really can’t control. All this does is cloud and confuse us when it comes to the enduring factors that build an elite workforce. The best you can expect from continuous listening is that it might lead to continuous tail chasing. Do you really want to spend all your time chasing foul balls? The worst case is that it might make you worse instead of better and it undermines the potential to get high quality feedback in the future.

Having made this important point, we do need to add the caveat that real-time feedback and pulse surveys certainly have a place. If you want feedback on utilization or favorability of a new program, or to compare the relative preferences for different options for the employee benefit package or give employees the chance to vote for a ping-pong table vs. a foosball table in the break room, then you can get your answer quick and easy. Just remember to follow-up and communicate, and don’t overdo it. If you do, don’t expect it to improve your employee engagement scores.

Don’t be Tempted to Wait Too Long.

Some companies, because of the time and effort it has taken to pull off a good survey process, have decided to survey every other year. First of all, it’s important to note that our new and innovative technologies have removed many of the headaches and much of the effort involved in the past. But, even more important to note, are the real disadvantages of a semi-annual survey process.

An engagement survey process will not move the needle unless managers take it seriously. What does a semi-annual process communicate with your managers? “Sure—we want you to take this process, seriously. We want you to set a goal, take action, and follow-through. But we don’t care enough about it to give you feedback on how you are doing for two whole years.” By then you won’t even know whether it worked or not. So many things could have changed. What goal, no matter how important, can be sustained for two years without review or feedback?

If you wait two years, even if there are changes, you can’t really be sure what caused them. Managers and leaders need meaningful feedback in order to stay focused on what’s important. In two years an entire team might have turned over, financial condition of the company might have changed dramatically or the market might have evolved in ways that demand big changes in the business model. If things don’t go well, after two years, managers will have many other factors to blame, thus avoiding accountability.

Use the Powerful Approach.

Allow us to reiterate our strong and well documented point of view. An annual survey, conducted the same time and under the same conditions each year, can actually allow managers to monitor their impact, even through changing times. It provides managers time to actually create sustainable changes in the level of engagement of their employees and gives them precise feedback on the degree of that change. It allows leaders to learn exactly what worked best and what didn’t work at all. This feedback and discovery enables executives to orchestrate improvements in the process year after year.

One mid-year check-in or pulse survey can be motivational and help create accountability. If you have an issue that you really need employees to weigh in on, the new technologies allow you to get your answer quickly. Just take great care to communicate the reasons for doing the survey, and make sure everyone knows you utilized the results and followed up. Otherwise, stick with a consistent message and stay focused on a small number of the most significant priorities established through the application of a smart and appropriate science.

For additional information on these and related topics please see Bill Erickson’s new book No Pegs, No Holes—The Psychology of Elite Performance, or contact us at Workforce Science Associates.

About Workforce Sciences

At Workforce Science Associates, we believe in Leading Engagement with Purpose, and we’re able to uphold that promise to all of our clients through years of proven delivery, an understanding of “smart engagement” practices and focusing on steady results. This focus empowers us to deliver an impactful workforce engagement solution to every client, every employee and every business leader.

Bill has played a key role in building and studying great companies for over 40 years. After fifteen years as Executive Vice President of the Gallup Organization he was a founder of Human Resource Innovations, later to become Kenexa. Before Kenexa was acquired by IBM it had quickly become the largest provider of employee research. Bill is currently a Principal of Workforce Science Associates, LLC.

Bill Erickson is an Amazon best-selling author of NO PEGS, NO HOLES—The Psychology of Elite Performance. To read an excerpt, view a video trailer or buy the book, visit the Publication page.